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Mike Preston: Ravens need ways to keep Josh Allen in check | COMMENTARY

A major key for the Ravens in beating Buffalo on Saturday night in an AFC Divisional playoff game is to be disciplined on defense even when Bills quarterback Josh Allen freelances.

That’s not a criticism of Allen, but a compliment. He can improvise like Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, but Jackson can turn a broken play into a big one with his legs while Allen uses his arm. Regardless, trying to defend both requires the same discipline as opposed to the standard drop back quarterback like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.

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“Coming out of college he already had that competitive confidence, the competitive arrogance,” said ESPN analyst Rex Ryan, the former New York Jets and Buffalo head coach who also was a Ravens defensive coordinator. “He had to improve his accuracy, which everybody does, as well as learn to anticipate some things in the pro game.

“He is athletic enough where he can get out of situations and is accurate as hell on the move. That may not be his biggest asset, but certainly one that separates him from other quarterbacks. You have to be careful how you approach and attack.”

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Allen, in his third season, has completed 396 of 572 passes for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions. In a perfect world, the Ravens would love to get an early lead and then be able to get pressure on Allen with their front four or five.

But there isn’t a perfect world in defending Allen.

The Ravens can’t blitz him constantly like they have done to other young quarterbacks. Ravens coordinator Don Martindale has to mix and match because a major improvement in Allen’s game from a year ago is being able to read coverages and change plays at the line of scrimmage.

And, when you blitz him, you have to stay in your lane or his ability to improvise might cost you six points.

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“You’ve got to pick your spots,” Martindale said. “And it’s a chess match on their side, as well, when they’re looking at us. That’s why I always look forward to these types of games. So, it’ll be interesting to see. But he knows that there’s going to be pressure — that’s for sure. That’s who we are. That’s what we’ve done.”

“As far as up front, you don’t want to give him lanes to go run, because he’ll crease you, and he’s a big dude to take down in the middle of the field,” said Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith. “So, preparation for that is just like I said, just trying to keep him corralled — you don’t want to let him get out.”

Martindale has said Allen has the size and ability to extend plays like Ben Roethlisberger, when he was a younger quarterback with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the accuracy of Dan Marino. Translation: He has a skill set similar to former Denver quarterback John Elway.

But Allen is only part of the problem in slowing Buffalo’s passing game. The other involves speedy receivers Stefon Diggs (127 catches for 1,535 yards, eight touchdowns), John Brown (33, 458, 3) and slot weapon Cole Beasley (82, 967, 4).

The Ravens like to play a lot of man-to-man coverage and have talked about “plastering” the Bills receivers. Because of the speed, it will be interesting to see if cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Smith try to jam the Bills at the line of scrimmage or back off like they did versus Kansas City in fear of giving up a big play.

“All their guys are really good, they get active, and Josh Allen has taken a major step this year as far as what I’ve seen in his game,” Smith said. “So, he can really escape the pocket, can run it, can throw it. What Diggs is capable of doing, and also Beasley is good at moving the chains and running underneath routes. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us. We’re a man-to-man team, and we’re going to have to get our hands on these guys and try to slow them down.”

The Ravens have already looked at last year’s game film from the regular-season matchup in which they defeated the Bills, 24-17, but that probably won’t help much. In that game, Allen completed only 17 of 39 passes for 146 yards and he was sacked six times.

If he had completed three of his passes in the first quarter it would have changed the complexion of the game and the Ravens could have been behind by 14 or 21 points. Regardless, the Ravens couldn’t seal the win until late in the game.

This Allen is different from a year ago when he was erratic and inaccurate. He spent the off season with a personal quarterback coach working on his mechanics and Buffalo made the best move in the NFL during the off season by signing Diggs.

Yet for all the improvements, the Ravens have a chance now to end their dream run. But only if they can slow Allen.

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